Progression of the Internet and the growth of networked computing have impacted almost all business sectors and industries, some more than others. At the same time, this evolution in computing is revolutionizing the automation industry, or at least it will for Automation GT, a custom automation assembly house headquartered in Carlsbad, CA. Automation has traditionally been focused on the mechatronics of a standalone machine: coordinating the mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and control engineering of a machine system. "Our vision at Automation GT," offers President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Simon Grant, "is to expand from a single mechatronic machine to a shared network of systems that can talk to each other and report to a management portal in real time." What Grant foresees will mean that an executive sitting at a desk in, for example, Silicon Valley, CA, can review a comparative summary of all systems installed in a facility in Shanghai or Buenos Aires and drill down on a specific machine to see its operational efficiency and what parts need service.
Grant explains: "What we've begun to do at Automation GT is to standardize the tools that automation systems operate on and network them to the same controls operating platform. Instead of various machines reporting (or not reporting) to separate and isolated data repositories, all machines report to one master platform where you can view data for each specific machine as well as a comparative summary view of all operating systems." He adds that "now data becomes information."
At present, the machines in automation systems are installed with custom code, in custom configurations, using custom reporting methods, and custom management approaches. However, rather than having a unique configuration for each machine, Grant suggests that automation systems can be constructed on a standardized platform so that users can look at any machine through the same user interface and examine aggregate data that can be manipulated and compared.
Building the Future
In support of Grant's vision, Automation GT can build machines on an integrated information technology (IT) infrastructure that allows users to store information on a shared database. With this in place, identity profiles can be set up for management and access control to specific machines. The ability to read data or make code changes will only be permitted to authorized users upon login. "This level of regulation isn't normally practiced because until now the technology didn't exist," explains Grant. He adds: "That is going to change and Automation GT is among the first custom automation houses to offer it. We have world-class control engineers who are already doing it for our customers that operate internationally."
Centralized "recipe" management is an added bonus of placing automation systems within a shared infrastructure. Grant observes: "We have a customer that uses automation to build patient specific medical devices. They have 700+ spreadsheets of code for any one order." For each assembly or product, a system operator must manually plug in a code to arm the machine with the "intelligence" it needs to assemble that specific product. But with so many spreadsheets, and if they are not properly controlled and monitored, there can be problems. Grant explains: "If someone accidently changes a number in there, no one knows. We suggest that all recipes be uploaded to a database so that when the system operator needs to change the recipe, he or she can simply select 'Recipe No. 4' or 'Recipe No. 4,652,' " he adds. Through the use of a shared infrastructure, changes can be made directly on the human-machine interface (HMI) or remotely through the shared server. The automation network makes it possible for the machine to work through the software to pull the required assembly recipe, load the recipe, and run according to that recipe. Grant explains: "That recipe is managed and controlled so no one can change it. And if someone wants to change it you can program in change control on the server so the operator is required to fill in a form and say 'this is how I'm going to modify it, this is how I've tested the new code, etc.'" Grant also explains that, upon program modification, alerts can be established to signify to management that Recipe No. 4,652 has been changed on Machine A by Operator X in order to keep track of modifications to the machines and the network.
As the automation industry progresses, a growing number of companies will network their systems. The level of control management, security, and information within this industry is already unparalleled by any other applicable technology. Grant states: "You need a unified relationship between your engineering group, your automation and controls group, and your IT group. When all those three are aligned and able to communicate, you have the ability to use the tools from the IT side, the controls and software side, and train your mechatronics to listen and talk to all of these. Once you have this union, this trifecta, it is a very powerful system." Recent advances in networking, virtual machine technology, and cloud computing have allowed enhanced integration of automation and business systems, clearing the way for the use of analysis and reporting tools already familiar to manufacturing, engineering, and management groups.
Automation GT partners with clients to design and manufacture automated assembly, inspection, and test systems within medical device, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology markets. The company also provides build-to-print manufacture and retrofit upgrades. FDA-standard compliance, documentation, and lifetime service and maintenance are all part of the company's end-to-end service program.
Contact: Automation GT, 1939 Palomar Oaks Way, Suite B, Carlsbad, CA. 92011 760-741-7288 fax: 760-741-7269 Twitter: @AutomationGT, Web: http://www.automationgt.com